Being Well

Does Talc Cause Cancer?

Cosmetic powder products containing talc should be free of asbestos, but some concern remains about their cancer risk.

Talcum powder has been featured in the press lately due to its potential relationship to cancer. Talc in its natural form can contain asbestos, a substance linked to lung cancer. But does talc cause cancer from everyday cosmetic use?

What Is Talcum Powder?

Talcum powder is commonly used in baby powder, cosmetics and body products that absorb moisture in areas prone to chafing or rash. Talc is a mineral made of magnesium, silicon and oxygen. All consumer products containing talc should be free of asbestos, according to industry standards set by the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrances Association in the 1970s.

Researchers have been studying talc for decades and consumers have been using it for even longer. However, the powder has come under increased public scrutiny after a court ruling against Johnson & Johnson in 2018. A jury ordered the company to pay a large settlement to women who claimed the baby powder led to ovarian cancer, reported The New York Times. The company has since been involved in investigations to determine whether its baby powder contains trace amounts of asbestos.

Does Talc Cause Cancer?

Breathing in asbestos or minerals containing asbestos can lead to an increased risk of lung cancer. Some talc miners may be at higher risk of developing lung cancer by breathing in the raw mineral. Studies haven’t been able to definitively say whether talc miners develop lung cancer at higher rates because of their work.

It’s harder to draw a connection between cancer risk and asbestos-free talc used in cosmetics (though there are other chemicals in makeup you can avoid as a precaution).

Women might use talc around their genital area, and there’s some concern over whether that use leads to an increased risk of ovarian cancer. Many studies have explored a potential cause-and-effect relationship, but there haven’t been any definitive results yet. The idea is that using the powder in the genitals may allow it to travel up the vagina and into the ovaries, where it can cause inflammation and, over time, cancer. However, the powder hasn’t been linked to any other gynecologic cancers.

The American Cancer Society has reviewed the existing research and concluded, so far, that if there is an increased risk of ovarian cancer, it’s most likely a very small increase. The research isn’t clear because most studies rely on personal accounts of how much talc has been used in the past and are subject to bias or faulty memory. Because of the mixed evidence and some studies finding a possible increased risk of ovarian cancer, the International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified the use of talcum body powder in the genitals as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”

Research has not found an increased risk of lung cancer from using the purified form of talc in cosmetics, like when powdering your baby’s bottom.

If you’re uncertain about the safety of talc, look for an alternative. Cornstarch is a natural alternative to talcum powder, and many over-the-counter cosmetic products and baby powders are available with cornstarch rather than talc.

If you have questions about your cancer risk factors, talk to your doctor.

Learn More
Patricia Chaney
Patricia Chaney